Terrence Mallick is a challenging and obtuse filmmaker, and if I am being honest I have liked exactly one of his films. 1973’s “Badlands” is a mysterious and atmospheric reinterpretation of the Charles Starkweather story told through the prism of amalgamated mythologies. It works on the viewer with a kind of anxious beauty. To date it is still the best work Mallick has done coaxing thoughtful and layered performances from his actors. Whatever you think of Mallick’s work it is always deeply considered and possesses a signature that few others have been able to duplicate, namely his ability to forward a strong set of ideas and even a morality without passing judgment on his characters.
I saw “House of the Devil” on video-on-demand a couple years back. If you had told after seeing that thoroughly tepid, non-sensual homage to late 70’s/ early 80’s fright flicks that I would be starting a review of a Ti West movie by talking about Terrence Mallick, I would have assumed it would be about how I feel asleep watching the gorgeous but dull “Days of Heaven” in film school.
“Trigger Man” follows three friends on a sojourn from the sticky asphalt maze of New York City to some verdant, labyrinth hunting grounds upstate. The old hand hunter of the bunch is Sean who has elected to bring along his two compatriots; the gung-ho but clueless Ray and the hangdog Reggie, who is on the outs with his significant other.
The group winds their way into the wild and begins taking potshots at random objects when deer fail to materialize in the woods. Eventually someone else starts to take aim at them. Two members of the trio are picked off in short order leaving the third to try and find the gunman’s roost by himself. As he makes for an abandoned factory that seems the likely crow’s nest for the sniper, our lone survivor encounters other victims who were in the wrong forest at the wrong time.
Ti West isn’t Terrence Mallick but there are some interesting similarities between the tenor of “Trigger Man” and Mallick’s cinematic predilections. Anyone who has seen “House of the Devil” can attest to the fact that West likes to let things breathe, and breathe… and breathe. Patience in this form does allow for moments of furious violence to appear unexpectedly and leave deep, jarring impressions on the audience. Overused as a technique, as I believe it was in “House of Devil” and is at times in “Trigger Man” as well, it creates a drag on the narrative that makes even the most effective flourish of action seem hardly worth the wait. In laudable contrast to the unrelenting inaction of “House of the Devil” West uses the measured approach in "Trigger Man" to more effectively entrench the viewer in the universe . Unfortunately much of the film will still represent significant test to most viewer’s patience, one that is not limited to drawn out passages of tensionless, character free filler. West also employs camera techniques early on (smash zooms, POV’s, and swish pans) that may be attempts to unsettle the viewer but instead come across as amateurish and confusing.
What Ti West has grabbed from Mallick’s bag o’ tricks that works particularly well is a refusal to judge his characters or even place their actions in an identifiable psychological or sociological frame of reference for purposes of explaining them away. Our main protagonist in “Trigger Man” is in the woods surviving and the shooter is in the forest killing people, the rest of the story is left to the viewer to fill in. Unlike Mallick there is no voice over to inform as to the character’s feelings about the circumstances, augment atmosphere and draw in other themes.
“Trigger Man” feels at once like a miscalculation and a very deliberate film. The early torpor pays dividends in the form of more arresting violence down the line but it also makes the 2nd act feel stretched to the point of snapping. There are some wonderful practical FX and the 3rd act floats the audience in place of tension and uncertainty. Your enjoyment or disdain for Terrence Mallick’s work shouldn’t be the determinant on whether or not you watch something like “Trigger Man”, in many important ways they aren’t in the same cinematic lexicon. That said Ti West has made some careful choices here, chief amongst them and shared with films like “The New World” and “Days of Heaven” is the choice to not push the narrative ahead of the atmosphere. This decision isn’t always effective or deftly executed but it does leave the viewer time to consider the situation more carefully. This is also a strong choice in the sense that we can’t shelter in cool artifice to escape the growing tension. This choice lets the viewer down as well because without something to impart about the human condition West leaves us sitting in the forest with 3 under developed characters for the first 40 minutes of the movie.